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A rare Chinese tea set from the Qing dynasty has been seized from a top Mayfair art gallery because it was partly made from African elephant ivory.
Customs officers took possession of the silver set in October 2015 as it was shipped into Heathrow from Hong Kong, when they discovered there was no valid import licence.
The manager of Mayfair Gallery, James Sinai, appealed for the six-piece set to be returned, arguing it is “an item of cultural and historical importance” which had been “seized on a technicality”.
But a judge, sitting at the first tier tribunal, has now ruled that the tea set was lawfully seized and should not be returned to the gallery.
Arguing his case, Mr Sinai said the tea set was only one per cent ivory and “it would be a tragic loss to the art world and Chinese cultural heritage were it to be condemned.”
When the items arrived in a crate at Heathrow without a valid import permit required by the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES), the gallery, in South Audley Street, Mayfair, blamed a shipping company for the error and said it had “done everything in its power” to comply with the law.
It argued that “accidents and mistakes are a fact of life” and pointed out that the tea set included a very small amount of ivory.
But Judge Rupert Jones pointed out two other shipments belonging to the gallery had been seized by customs in the previous 12 months, including a pair of £145,000 Louis XIV console tables imported from Switzerland and inlaid with ebony and tortoiseshell.
UK Border Force agreed to return those items to the gallery for a fee, along with a guarantee that the gallery owners would tighten up their importation procedures. However, when the tea service arrived, customs agents decided to seize it.
Dismissing the appeal, Judge Jones said there were no “exceptional” reasons why it should be returned to the gallery and added that the business should be on “high alert” as an importer of art and antiques from around the world for the last 40 years.
“Ultimately, the gallery is responsible for importations and its compliance with all laws and regulations. It cannot delegate this responsibility to third parties”, he said.
James Sinai, owner of the Mayfair Gallery, told the Standard: “It’s a tragedy. That tea set is a piece of history and has cultural value – it’s 120 years old and it’s a work of art.
“We respect the law. We absolutely agree that something needs to be done to stop the slaughter of elephants.
“The last thing we want is to see is these animals becoming extinct – it would be tragic for the world.”